Electronic Weapons: Warlock Spawn Deliver Frustration

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June 1, 2019: One of the disturbing discoveries made as the last ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) bases in Syria were captured in late 2018 was the new technologies ISIL had developed for setting off bombs. For example, ISIL had developed portable, battery-powered wi-fi signal extenders but had also come up with a gadget that extended a wi-fi signal up to a kilometer. This is much more than commercial wi-fi signal extenders provide. In part that is because pushing the wi-fi signal out that far is rarely needed by commercial users. Worse, some of the ISIL bomb builders familiar with this new technology escaped Syria and found refuge outside the Middle East. In early 2019 Indonesian police discovered this technology when they raided a local ISIL affiliate. Counter-terrorism organizations worldwide are now developing new jammers to deal with this threat. Some military and police signal jamming equipment has already shown up that will jam wi-fi signals and such capabilities are being added to widely used military grade jammers.

One of the most widely used military jammers, the American JCREW (Joint Counter Radio-Controlled Improvised Explosive Device Electronic Warfare) devices, introduced a new generation of jammers in 2018 and planned to continue production into 2020 before coming up with another upgrade. The current JCREW prevents most wireless bombs from detonating, but not those using wi-fi. The new JCREW is standard equipment with American forces overseas as well as those of some allies. Special jammers for wi-fi are available and already carried by some police counter-terrorism teams. Wi-fi detection and eavesdropping and jamming capability is already present in some of the airborne systems used by manned and unmanned intelligence collection aircraft. This makes it easier to detect that wi-fi detonators are being used. Troops can assemble an interim collection of wi-fi jamming gear until such capabilities can be added to JCREW.

The wi-fi bomb detonators are not yet widely used but the tech is widely available from commercial sources while “how to” documents are showing up on Islamic terrorist Internet sites. These Internet sites are constantly monitored by counterterrorism agencies for the latest developments. This is a major effort in itself because the best of these Islamic terror how-to sites are kept hidden. Data from these sites has shown that Islamic terror groups have known about various types of jamming for over a decade. The Islamic terror groups often do not have people who can do much with this knowledge to foil the military efforts to develop and upgrade military signal jammers. Sometimes these upgrades don’t arrive quickly enough. For example, the 2011 plan to upgrade the JCREW jammers, which are essential for disabling IEDs (improvised explosive devices) detonated wirelessly, was delayed until late 2017. This update was delayed because, well, because of a lot of things. One of these was the appearance of ISIL and the continued popularity of terrorists using remotely detonated bombs. These jammers were very popular after 2001 when remotely detonated bombs became more common after so many new commercial wireless devices came on the market and were easily obtained by Islamic terrorist bomb builders. But the first jammers nullified most of those remote triggering techniques.

By 2011 the proposed JCREW 3.1 upgrade proposal was recognized as a major improvement in jammer design because it enabled the users to easily add new frequencies to jam and was available in several size and weight versions. This included one that could be carried by foot patrols. More upgrades had been ordered but by 2013 it was obvious that work on completing and delivering JCREW 3.3 was in trouble. The project had been modified so much by new developments by 2013 that the new JCREW design was now called 3.3. To break the development logjam the project was assigned to another company. By 2017 that second development effort apparently succeeded and JCREW 3.3 went into production. Details of what caused the delays are kept secret as are details of how 3.3 works internally. This is standard for electronic weapons that the enemy is constantly trying to duplicate or work around. All that is known about 3.3 is that it is even easier and quicker to upgrade to add or delete frequencies as well as know exactly when certain frequencies are employed. One of the potential problems noted then was the use of the many wi-fi frequencies for detonating bombs. But until 2018 that capability was not seen much by those who track the technology used by terrorist bomb builders.

JCREW 3.1 arrived in 2011 after the United States had spent eight years (since 2003) and $17 billion to reduce the effectiveness of IEDs, especially roadside bombs. By 2011 that effort could be considered a qualified success, but the enemy kept adapting so IEDs still inflicted casualties. IEDs had been around for over a century but had become much more frequently encountered decade by decade. For example, in Vietnam (1961-72) only 14 percent of combat deaths were from IEDs (especially roadside bombs), compared to 50-60 percent in Iraq and Afghanistan. That was mainly because U.S. combat troops were a lot more deadly and the Iraqis and Afghans found that fighting the Americans directly was suicidal. So use of roadside bombs and suicide bombs was seen as a more viable approach. But the Americans responded with several generations of jammers that have made IEDs more difficult and risky to use. There were also new training and road security techniques developed along with computer simulators so troops could practice under realistic conditions without getting killed.

Meanwhile, the enemy adapted and continues to do so. By 2011 most roadside bombs in Afghanistan used pressure plates or wire controlled devices to detonate these weapons because American jamming technology had made wireless detonation of the bombs so difficult. The Taliban had another advantage in that there was not a lot of old artillery ammo to use for bombs, so they had to use fertilizer bombs and all sorts of improvisations which created new and unfamiliar (to the Americans) IED designs, that negated some of the techniques developed for Iraq. Still, the roadside bombs remained a last-ditch weapon of terrorists who had no other alternatives. While wi-fi became more common in urban areas of Afghanistan, it was also showing up in remote compounds owned by the drug gangs who finance the Taliban and make it easier for those Islamic terrorists to obtain new commercial electronic technology. This was also the case with ISIL in Syria and Iraq where for several years (2014-17) that Islamic terrorist group was quite wealthy (from looting banks and commercial operations) and smugglers would deliver whatever the Islamic terrorists wanted. But not much was seen of wi-fi bomb triggers until 2018, when news of the new tech had become widely available to terrorists via the Internet.

By 2011 the U.S. Department of Defense had developed a third generation of jammers to make sure the terrorists had to rely on less effective means of detonating their bombs for the foreseeable future. There was also an effort to make the jammers capable of collecting and analyzing electronic information (to locate the terrorists) or even prematurely detonate some bombs. It is believed that some of these “requested features” are what derailed and delayed the completion of JCREW 3.3. Back in 2011, it was obvious that Islamic terror groups had specialists who tracked these new technologies and were able to adapt it to the needs of bomb builders. These specialists were often not active Islamic terrorists but rather supporters in Moslem or Western nations who were either formally trained in electronics or capable amateurs.

Nevertheless, JCREW 3.1 was adequate for troop needs. That was because since 2003 the developers had all the money they needed as long as they came up with and shipped solutions as quickly as possible. There was a war on and peacetime delays and mucking about were not an option. For example in 2006 a major jammer innovation entered service as the JCREW dismounted (wearable) jammer. These cost about $99,000 each and had been frequently requested as soon as vehicle-mounted jammers became available. The wearable JCREW jammers are more useful in Afghanistan where more of the patrolling is on foot. Since 2006 the wearable JCREW jammers had gotten lighter, more reliable and more capable. But after 2011 additional capabilities proved difficult to implement, and getting from JCREW 3.1 to 3.3 took a lot longer and cost a lot more to develop and get into production.

JCREW began as a further development of the first (2003) Warlock jammer, which was not for the foot soldier and mounted in vehicles. The jammers quickly went through many revisions, mainly to add more frequencies and better software. By 2011 rolling along in a convoy, with one or more jammers broadcasting, the troops had an electronic "bubble" that made them safe from any wireless IED they had not spotted. It was not uncommon for vehicles to have had an IED go off behind them, the result of the IED detonation crew continuing to send the signal, believing that there might be something wrong with their equipment. In those cases, the patrol often turned around and went looking for the enemy team. Supply convoys just continued on their way.

In addition to jammers like JCREW and Warlock, several of the U.S. Air Force and Navy electronic warfare aircraft were tweaked so they could perform the same jamming functions, but over a wider area. This was often used when American troops were in action against the enemy, shutting down IED detonation over the entire combat area, as U.S. troops moved around seeking out and fighting the enemy.

One problem with the jamming was that it killed cell phone operation, as well as the use of many other remote electronic devices local civilians might be trying to use. New jammers could also shut down some local wi-fi service. The locals complain to each other, but asking the U.S. troops to shut it off would be futile, so they didn't. JCREW 3.3 was apparently working to do something to make this less of a problem.

JCREW 3.0 and 3.1 had lots of new features that frustrated terrorist efforts to develop jammer countermeasures. As a result, after 2011 most roadside bombs were set off via a wire connection between the detonator and the guy pressing a button. This caused more terrorist casualties and generally made it more difficult for the bombers. Pressure plate detonation was less popular because the terrorists had no control over when the bomb goes off, and when civilian vehicle were blown up by mistake, the Islamic terrorists involved dropped further in the opinion polls.

The big (non-secret) improvement in JCREW 3.0 was it was even easier to add a wider range of new frequencies, and the jammer interfered less with other military communications and sensors. Not all wi-fi frequencies were included in 3.3 but that capability is apparently being added soon. JCREW was also lighter and 3.1 (which initially was just referred to as the portable version) showed up because new versions of JCREW could be sent out for testing in a combat zone. For example, a hundred or so lightweight JCREW jammers were first sent to Iraq in 2008 for testing. These proved very popular with troops who did a lot of their patrolling on foot. It's become increasingly common for troops to make long movements on foot, to conduct raids or just patrol. The enemy has lookouts who are on the alert for U.S. vehicles, but not for dismounted American infantry sneaking up on them. For a while, JCREW 3.2 referred to the heavier version mounted in vehicles. Early on 3.3 had various names, all of them more difficult to remember. Because of all the delays, 3.3 just came to be known as the New JCREW.

The experience with Warlock and JCREW has been preserved by keeping the development group that designed, developed and later modified several generations of jammers. The jammer effort is much less intense now because the fundamental tech has proved flexible enough to be easily and quickly modified. Thus it was a surprise that ISIL developed new types of wi-fi detonators, but dealing with that possibility had already been built into JCREW, along with a lot of other new enemy capabilities the enemy had not mastered, or even thought of, yet.

 


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